In the 1930s, Norma Shearer was the Queen of MGM. She had elegant screen presence, a string of successful films, and an Oscar—and she was married to Irving Thalberg, the studio’s head of production. (As driven and ambitious as Shearer, Joan Crawford famously quipped, “What chance do I have? She sleeps with the boss!”) But long before the coming of sound, Shearer had built a successful career, propelled by her own ambition, determination, hard work, and talent.
Born in Montreal in 1902 (some sources say 1900 or 1904), Edith Norma Shearer was one of three children of a successful businessman. Athletic, pretty, and popular, young Norma had every advantage, including piano and dance lessons. But her father suffered financial setbacks, and the family fell on hard times. A relative suggested that Norma and her equally attractive sister Athole try show business, so selling Norma’s piano to finance the trip, the girls and their mother set off for New York in 1920.
They made the rounds of theatrical producers, among them Florenz Ziegfeld, creator of the famed Follies. But he was not impressed with Norma, who at five-foot-three, did not have the physical attributes to be a showgirl. She also failed to appeal to film director D.W. Griffith. Although attractive (she had won a beauty contest in Montreal), Shearer had pale blue eyes which washed out in the harsh lighting of early films. And she had one flaw that seemed to pose an insurmountable obstacle: her right eye was lazy and made her appear slightly cross-eyed. Shearer consulted Dr. William Horatio Bates, who had pioneered a method of treating eye problems through exercising the eye muscles. She assiduously practiced the Bates method and, over time, her eye improved considerably.
Perhaps because of these early rejections, Shearer was self-conscious about her real or imagined physical flaws for the rest of her life. So she learned to camouflage them and to emphasize her best assets. Regular exercise smoothed her figure and trimmed her heavy thighs. She disguised thick ankles and slightly bowed legs with long dresses, often with plunging necklines to emphasize her attractive shoulders and décolletage. Careful lighting and makeup solved the pale-eye problem. Showing off her perfect profile, or turning her face to a three-quarters angle helped to make her lazy eye less noticeable.
In those first few months in New York, the Shearer sisters managed to get some extra work in films, but soon even that dried up. Norma turned to modeling, among other jobs posing as “Miss Lotta Miles” for a tire company. Finally, with the help of an agent, she got her first important film job, and fourth billing, in The Stealers (1920). In Hollywood, Irving Thalberg, the 21-year-old general manager of Universal Studios, saw The Stealers and offered Shearer a contract. Some sources say she refused the offer because Universal would not pay her mother’s train fare to California; others say her agent vetoed it. Nevertheless, Thalberg began to keep a file on her. “An interesting girl who doesn’t look or act like anyone else!” he noted. Thalberg, born in 1899, was physically frail, but a brilliant business strategist. When he joined Universal, the company was floundering. Soon dubbed “The Boy Wonder,” Thalberg got the company back on its feet, thanks to his accounting and management skills, his eye for talent, and grasp of story material.
In 1922, Shearer received another contract offer from the Hal Roach Studios, but the terms were again unsatisfactory. A third offer, from the Mayer Company, was accepted, and Shearer and her mother headed west in early 1923. Shearer’s version of the story sounds like a movie scenario: when she got off the train in California, primped and pretty and ready to face the waiting press, there was nobody to meet her. Instead, she and her mother had to make their own hotel and transportation arrangements. The next day, Shearer presented herself at the studio. Encountering a young man she assumed to be an office boy, she demanded to see Mr. Thalberg. He took her to Thalberg’s office, sat down, then informed her that he was Mr. Thalberg. Taken aback, Shearer forged ahead, playing the diva. She complained about the lack of a reception at the train station and informed him that two other studios had offered her contracts. Thalberg then told her that all three offers had come from him — he had left Universal and worked briefly for Hal Roach Studios, before becoming the general manager of the Mayer Company. From such an unpromising beginning grew a successful professional partnership, and, eventually, a personal one.
Shearer paid her dues, churning out one film after another and learning her craft. Her biggest break came when she was loaned out to Warner Brothers for Broadway After Dark (1924), directed by Monta Bell. Born in 1891, Bell had been a newspaperman who turned to the stage, spending several years as an actor, producer, and director. Befriended by Charlie Chaplin, Bell acted in Chaplin’s The Pilgrim (1923) and edited A Woman of Paris (1923). Bell soon joined MGM, and he and Shearer made a total of six films together.
In 1924, the Mayer Company merged to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Established star Lon Chaney and a young newcomer named John Gilbert were costarred with Shearer in MGM’s inaugural production, He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Shearer’s role as leading lady in such a prestigious film was a measure of her importance to the studio, and the film gave a big boost to her career, and to Gilbert’s. Shearer and Gilbert costarred again in The Snob (1924), with Bell, who had by now fallen in love with her, directing. While she did not reciprocate, his adoration shows in the films they made together. With each film, Bell was able to draw more and more from Shearer. As her biographer Gavin Lambert writes, Bell “extended her technique, tapped her humor and inventiveness, encouraged her to be intimate with the camera, discouraged theatrical poses.” Lady of the Night (1925) is their finest achievement together, with Shearer rising to the challenge of playing a dual role. In the scenes where the two characters are seen together, a recent addition to the MGM roster named Lucille Le Sueur was used as Shearer’s double. Le Sueur, who soon changed her name to Joan Crawford, had her own powerful champions at the studio, but they couldn’t match the clout of Thalberg. Crawford developed a loathing for Shearer, whom she considered her main rival for the choicest roles.
By now, Shearer was popular with the public but was still not considered one of MGM’s top stars. In fact, Louis B. Mayer was planning to cancel her contract, but Thalberg insisted on keeping her. Thalberg’s interest in Shearer soon turned personal, and they married in 1927. It may have seemed more like a career move than a romantic one, but Shearer proved to be a devoted wife. She converted to Judaism, her husband’s religion, and she kept careful watch over Thalberg’s fragile health, making sure he didn’t overtax himself. The couple remained married until Thalberg’s death in 1936.
Shearer’s career soared, and she became even more popular with the coming of sound, thanks to her attractive voice and elegant diction. Bored with good-girl roles, she transformed herself into a sexpot, convincing a reluctant Thalberg to cast her in The Divorcee (1930), the film that won her an Academy Award. By the mid-1930s, she was playing more dignified roles, like Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1936). Shearer and Thalberg planned Marie Antoinette (1938) to be her grandest role yet, and it was, but Thalberg did not live to see it. Shearer made a few more films before retiring in 1942. She remarried to a ski instructor 12 years her junior, and they stayed together for the rest of her life. Norma Shearer died at the Motion Picture Country House (a film industry nursing home) in 1983. Monta Bell, forgotten, indigent, and crippled by arthritis, had also died there, in 1958.
Screened with Dave and Max Fleischer’s instructional animation film about how to use the telephone, Now You’re Talking (1927)
Presented at SFSFF 2004 with live music by Jon Mirsalis